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Massachusetts school officials to postpone spring MCAS testing, drawing criticism from unions

A classroom at the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester.
A classroom at the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Massachusetts education officials announced on Friday they will postpone this spring’s MCAS testing in an effort to ensure a smooth reopening of schools, a move that was criticized by some teachers unions but lauded by other education advocates.

The decision came hours before the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to give Commissioner Jeffrey Riley the authority to force districts to reopen their schools full-time.

The return of students to five days a week of in-person learning will begin with students in pre-kindergarten through grade 5 on April 5 — the same date that MCAS testing was previously scheduled to begin.

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Schools can now administer MCAS testing to grades 3-5 between May 10 and June 11. Dates for the upper grades are still being formalized.

“We want to get kids back to school in a regular routine before they are assessed,” said Colleen Quinn, a state education spokesperson.

The issue of standardized testing has been contentious during the pandemic that has significantly altered public education in the last year. With thousands of students still learning at home, teachers’ unions have raised issues of access to technology, particularly among low-income students, and called for MCAS to be canceled this year.

On Friday, the leader of one of the state’s largest unions reiterated that stance.

“We believe the state should be pressing the federal government for a waiver from having to administer these tests — not simply postponing them,” Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said in a statement. “High-stakes standardized tests are problematic in the best of times, and they would be especially damaging right now.”

“MCAS is not going to tell us what needs to be done” to address learning loss, said Najimy, noting districts already have plenty of information on how their students are doing. She said testing would “simply tell us what we already know: that low-income students and students of color have been impacted the most by the disruptions.”

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Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said postponing the test provides some “breathing room,” but there are still unanswered questions.

“There were certainly concerns about how logistically it was even going to work,” she said in an interview. “We certainly heard from many parents who were concerned about bringing their children in just to take a test.”

Officials at the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts could not be reached for comment.

The leader of a statewide education advocacy group said she agreed with the state’s decision.

Keri Rodrigues, founder Massachusetts Parents United, said the postponement “makes sense” and that canceling the test entirely would cause more harm than good.

About a half-million students take the exams each year. The state previously announced that it also was planning to significantly reduce the length of the tests for this spring.

State officials said in January that the standards-based exams, which were canceled last year because of the pandemic, are necessary to measure how much learning loss has occurred since the widespread shutdown of schools last March.

This year’s MCAS data will be used to develop strategies to help students overcome learning loss and won’t be used to punish schools for low scores, Riley said previously. The state will not designate any schools as underperforming, a status that can lead to state oversight, based on this year’s scores, he said.

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Under federal law, states are required to test students annually in math and English in grades 3 through 8 and at least one grade level in high school. Last year, the Trump administration allowed states to waive the testing requirement, but Biden administration officials said last month that states could not cancel testing this year but could shorten tests, delay them, or conduct them online.

Some local elected officials agreed that testing should be canceled.

“We shouldn’t be having the MCAS at all this year,” Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who is running for mayor, said on Twitter. “We need to focus on supporting our students & teachers, NOT creating unnecessary stress. Our kids are struggling right now–we don’t need this test to tell us that.”

Jennifer M. Spadafora, a Malden School Committee member, said pressure to perform well on the test will add stress to the lives of students already dealing with the pandemic and the social isolation of learning from home for nearly a year.

“It’s a huge stressor on parents, it’s a huge stressor on the students, and on educators as well,” Spadafora said in an interview.

She said many parents and teachers across the state have come to Riley with their concerns about resuming the MCAS.

“I don’t see Commissioner Riley really listening to the parents and the educators right now, when we’ve spoken so loudly with what we need for our students,” she said. “Our students should come first, and I don’t think he’s listening whatsoever.”

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Liam Kerr, state director of Massachusetts Democrats for Education Reform, supported the commissioner’s decision to delay the testing timeline for the MCAS, saying it will provide valuable information.

“We need reliable data from a common, objective assessment to measure whether or not students are on grade level, so that parents, teachers, schools, and districts can help students recover from the pandemic’s effects,” he said in a statement.

Rodrigues, of Massachusetts Parents United, said data from this year’s exam could be “incredibly important” to assess student performance amid unprecedented times.

“Yes, we’re going to have a modified version of it, and MCAS is not perfect, but it’s the assessment tool that we have,” she said by telephone Friday afternoon. “And frankly, we need to know how much help kids are going to need, where our resources need to go.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.